Category archive: Indiana Hoosiers
Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Brian Wardle was called into a meeting in April and handed a letter accusing him of verbal abuse and mistreating his players.
"It was hard to read," Wardle said in an exclusive interview by phone Friday afternoon. "I swore I would cooperate with the investigation, be quiet and let the process play out. I sat there knowing the truth would come out one day and felt confident in the person and coach that I am. I'm a demanding head coach, not demeaning. I'm demanding, not demeaning."
Wardle's patience paid off. An exhaustive independent investigation by local attorney Joseph Nicks determined that Wardle was guilty of using inappropriate language, but not of forcing former walk-on Ryan Bross to continue a running drill and ignoring him when he complained he was ill and later defecated on himself.
Wardle will remain UW-Green Bay's coach, the school announced Friday. The story made national headlines, coming just weeks after Rutgers fired men's basketball coach Mike Rice and his assistant, Jimmy Martelli, after evidence obtained by ESPN showed Rice committing physical and verbal abuse.
Nicks put together a 39-page report that was released Friday. Chancellor Tom Harden did what Rutgers did not, immediately going outside the university to conduct an investigation. Wardle praised Harden and UWGB athletic director Ken Bothof for their support.
"I totally understand the chancellor's decision supported the university during the investigation," said Wardle. "I thought it was a very smart decision."
The report concluded Wardle should have sent Bross back to the locker room earlier during the drill, but that he did not humiliate him in front of teammates. The report does indicate that certain inappropriate words were used; as a result, Wardle will have an adviser with him next season to monitor how he motivates his players.
He also will have a disciplinary letter put in his file for the use of vulgar and obscene language and for his "suggestion that a player have sex." At this point, his contract won't be extended beyond its current end date of 2017. But Harden said future extensions still could be done.
"I've learned that the coaching climate has changed," Wardle said. "You have to be willing to make tweaks out of your coaching style to get the most out of every kid. I know it has changed the last 10 years. But you've got to make those tweaks. Now I know."
Wardle, 33, leaned heavily on his wife, Lecia, a former soccer player at Marquette, whom he met when he was a member of Tom Crean's staff at Marquette.
"My main concern was my family, my 6-year-old, my 3-year-old, my 1-year-old, my parents in the Chicagoland area, the program, the administration, all of them," Wardle said. "I had to keep positive. We signed a player during this time, we got a commitment. I knew we could work through this. It was hard not to defend myself. I've been in Green Bay the last eight years as an assistant and head coach. I knew that people knew my character. I knew they thought I was trustworthy. [The allegations] were inconsistent with who I am and how I act."
Wardle said Crean, now the coach at Indiana, was a tremendous asset during the month-long investigation.
"I was never worried about what they were going to find, never," Crean told ESPN.com Friday. "I told him to stay true to yourself, to your family. You know how your players view you and how strong your relationship is with them."
Crean said his biggest concern was ensuring Wardle had the right attorney to help him navigate the investigation.
"I'm sick over him and his family having to go through this," Crean said. "In the same vein, he will be better for it and will learn a ton about people and their agendas and that will serve him well. I appreciate people supported him and the truth came out."
Wardle said the episode was hard to deal with, but he did his best to be patient.
"There's nothing you can do about it," he said. "What I knew was how I respond from this day forward is what matters. My goal is to make sure everyone is proud of Green Bay basketball and show them this year and years to come what we can do. I'm proud of what we've done here."
Wardle said his practices are open and he will remain accessible.
But, as he said, he will have to tweak his approach a bit. He said he knew that his case would be viewed in a different light because of the Rutgers situation, but he was confident in the truth.
"I learned that in coaching moments, when things are heated and emotional and competitive in practice, the things you say can make a difference to a young man," Wardle said. "I'm conscious of that now and I will correct them.
"I knew that once these allegations were made about me, I knew that I hadn't acted like that. Obviously physical abuse you can't do and verbal abuse cannot be done to these young men. Social media makes everything instantaneous. It can become a national story. I believe I'm not a perfect coach. I've grown, though, and over time my character will stand the test of time."
They were two of the top players at the NBA pre-draft combine last week in Chicago. Oladipo probably isn't getting past Phoenix at No. 5 in the draft. Zeller won't go too far after that selection. They interviewed well with teams last week and were just as impressive with the media.
Indiana doesn't win the 2012-13 Big Ten regular-season title or get to the Sweet 16 without either one.
Now comes phase two in their contributions to Indiana basketball. Will Oladipo and Zeller have a similar impact on Tom Crean's program in the same manner Dwyane Wade did -- and still does -- after playing for him at Marquette?
Wade led the Golden Eagles to the 2003 Final Four -- the first for that program since 1977. He was the fifth pick in the '03 NBA draft and has won two championships with the Heat -- one with Shaq before LeBron and one with LeBron after Shaq.
No one should or does expect Oladipo and Zeller to duplicate any of that in the NBA. While neither was able to take Indiana to the Final Four, they helped return the Hoosiers to the national spotlight and consistent relevance.
Crean sees the parallels to what Wade did for Marquette and the opportunity Oladipo and Zeller have at Indiana.
"They have added to this great legacy at Indiana,'' Crean said. "They are a big part of our era."
Crean has had Wade around his Hoosiers. Oladipo and Zeller saw the impact. Former Indiana players who are in the NBA -- such as Eric Gordon and D.J. White -- have returned. But they didn't play for Crean and don't have the same connection Oladipo and Zeller will have with him and future Hoosiers.
"They're going to grow into those roles,'' Crean said. "Victor and Cody have already been a huge part of our recruiting. There is no question they are going to have a future impact on Indiana basketball.''
Crean said the two have "the right stuff'' and haven't deviated from who they are when they arrived -- Oladipo three years ago and Zeller two.
"They brought the program back, worked hard and had tremendous character,'' Crean said.
Crean said Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, outgoing seniors, had a significant handprint on Indiana's revitalization as well. So did rising senior Will Sheehey. But those three don't have the opportunities ahead like Oladipo and Zeller. Oladipo, probably more so than Zeller, will have the platform with the potential to be a headline player in the league.
Crean said Wade wasn't about a financial commitment to Marquette but more so about his time. He referenced how he squeezed in a Marquette appearance during a tight window of commercial tapings for national ads to ensure he was on campus for an English teacher request.
"You have to really care about it or you're not going to do it," Crean said. "There is a lot of parallel with these guys. Dwyane did it and paid attention to the program. I saw it when I was at Michigan State and how Magic [Johnson] came back. He might have corporate speeches, but when he came back to Michigan State, it was a locker room speech. Dwyane is the same way. The former players at Indiana are a big part of it for us here. But now we're adding to it. For the future of our program, you'll see Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford."
Indiana will get the PR pop on draft night when a pair of Hoosiers are taken in the lottery.
Crean will certainly use the buzz that night to create momentum. He isn't demanding a return from the players. He simply expects it will happen because of the nature of who Oladipo and Zeller are and have been while at Indiana.
They have been to him at IU what Wade meant to him at Marquette. If they can come a quarter close to that in the future, then Crean will get a payoff that will be immeasurable.
"But I thought I wouldn't get it off in time," Griffey told ESPN.com by phone late Thursday night from Champaign, Ill. "I knew 0.4 [seconds] is enough for a shot, so I thought I better get it off. And I knew I got it off in time."
Griffey made the right call. Opting to dunk would have meant the shot likely would have been late and led to an overtime in which the Illini might not have recovered.
Instead, Griffey scored the only way he could in this incredible situation. His shot has a chance to create shelf life in a similar manner to Christian Watford's shot for Indiana to beat Kentucky last season. Coincidentally, both shots were at Assembly Hall -- one in Bloomington, Ind., one in Champaign, Ill.
"It's pretty amazing to think about it," said Griffey. "I'm still hyperventilating. People were yelling at me on the street. This hasn't sunk in yet."
Griffey said the play call was one they had run in practice. He said the ball was placed out of bounds in an awkward spot on the side. For whatever reason, Indiana's Yogi Ferrell, Watford and Cody Zeller all were faced in one direction, leaving Griffey alone to cut to the basket with no one watching.
"It was bizarre how it happened," Griffey said. "I couldn't believe no one was in front of me to the basket."
"I was trailing that play, and Brandon made the steal and D.J. had the ball and Oladipo made the play; he's a heckuva athlete," Griffey said. "He is a great player and a great defensive player. I was sprinting up as fast as I could."
The Illini had been struggling of late. They have marquee wins over Butler in Maui, at Gonzaga and at home over Ohio State before beating No. 1 Indiana, but Illinois entered the game with a 2-7 Big Ten record, hardly an NCAA-looking team.
But the Illini still had NCAA-worthy wins if they could bookend their season with quality victories. They just did.
"Coach [John Groce] said after the game we just have to trust each other, trust the system and the communication, and it showed on the court," said Griffey. "We were clapping and talking and encouraging each other [during the comeback after trailing 41-29 at the half].
"This is a huge confidence booster. We always knew we could do this, but we weren't playing like it. Guys were struggling, me included. I was 0-for-20 on 3s, and then I hit a couple of shots beyond the arc."
Griffey finished with 14 points, including two 3s.
Illinois has a daunting schedule, with five of the final eight on the road. The road games are at Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State with the three home games against Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska, three teams not heading to the NCAAs.
NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski said Thursday the committee would of course be tracking Illinois, and while that schedule looks strong, it also means the Illini have opportunities.
"The Big Ten is the best conference in the country," said Griffey. "We're going to enjoy it, and then on to Minnesota [on] Sunday."
Why not enjoy it? He was in the center of a surge of humanity.
"It was surreal," said Griffey. "I was just trying to keep my balance as long as I could stay on my feet before my teammates tackled me."
Griffey's thrilling shot is sure to be framed, just like Watford's was against Kentucky a year ago.
"I'm sure I'll get one," said Griffey. "I'll remember that the rest of my life."
Let me start with a disclaimer and say that I'm a Wooden Award voter.
I know the omissions on the midseason Top 25 list won't win the national player of the year award.
I've been touting the impact of Oladipo throughout this season. He is a game-changer. He makes winning plays and has altered the way Indiana plays the game.
Oladipo's energy is infectious. He reads the passing lanes and creates points off turnovers.
He is averaging 13.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, has picked off 35 steals, and is shooting nearly 48 percent on 3s.
But it is his ability to take Indiana to another level that has changed the Hoosiers.
Indiana will win the national title if Oladipo is heavily involved.
He is as integral to this team as any other starter.
Should he be on the Top 25 list? Yes.
And if he continues to play in the same manner, Oladipo must be included on some All-American lists at season's end.
Olynyk would be my choice from Gonzaga if you had to choose one.
I'm not sure another player has come back from a redshirt year and changed his body as much as Olynyk has, while becoming more skilled and productive.
He gives the Zags one of the toughest matchups in the country because he can make a face-up shot and put the ball on the court and drive, and he also has post-up skills.
Olynyk leads one of the most versatile teams in the country in scoring (17 points per game) and is a solid rebounder (6.6 per game).
He has handled the challenges in the WCC. Olynyk scored 33 points at Santa Clara and put up 17 points in the first half against rival Saint Mary's on Thursday night, finishing with 31.
He has scored consistently in wins over Oklahoma State (21 points), Baylor (21), Kansas State (20) and Washington State (22).
I'm not sure how anyone watching Gonzaga wouldn't see Olynyk as the team's most valuable player. He may end up being one of the top forwards in the country, positioned next to Plumlee and McDermott on a first-team All-American list.
He is that important and has been critical to the Zags' sensational start.
I'm quibbling on two players, but they should have been given their due for the work they've done midway through the season.
And so it was here in Brooklyn during Indiana's shootaround on Monday.
The two most recognizable names on the IU coaching staff: coaching, motioning, gesturing, talking and constantly on point. The shootaround -- just an hour long -- was as intense as any practice you'll witness.
That's probably why the Hoosiers have moved from a stumbling rebuilding project to the No. 1 team in the country. And why they have the look of a team that isn't going to drop from the national radar -- even if Indiana were to lose to Georgetown on Tuesday in the championship game of the Legends Classic (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"I don't think they've lost that mentality,'' Crean said of the Hoosiers' approach to being the hunted -- the team with the target -- instead of the hunter. "They're practicing like a hungry team. That's what it's been like.''
Indiana dealt with adversity Monday night. The Hoosiers let a young, scrappy but erratic Georgia team get a lead at halftime. Indiana big man Cody Zeller played limited minutes due to foul problems.
This wasn't a stellar Zeller night. He didn't look like the preseason player of the year, recording only six points and four rebounds, with four turnovers. And the Hoosiers didn't have the dominant look of a champion. Instead, they found a way to win by leaning on others. Jordan Hulls made key second-half 3s. Victor Oladipo got to the hoop and converted. Christian Watford continued to be in the right place at the right time. Yogi Ferrell had a consistent game with five assists and one turnover.
The Hoosiers aren't a dominant team. But they have the pieces to be in play for the title come March. When they get freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin eligible, they'll have the length and size to offset a foul-plagued game from Zeller.
"They have a wingspan of plus-nine, they run the floor and they are great kids,'' Crean said. "They've done a phenomenal job in school. They have handled all of this without any adjustment problems.''
The turnaround of the Hoosiers is remarkable, but not completely surprising. There are only a handful of programs that you can arguably say shouldn't ever dip to irrelevancy: Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.
Crean has worked tirelessly to get IU back to the top. He landed the necessary recruits, led by Zeller, to push this program over the top. Having Zeller return for his sophomore season and getting Ferrell to stay close to home was and is the difference in Indiana's being a title contender.
But the Hoosiers aren't complacent. They haven't let the attention get to them. They haven't been full of themselves. They know they haven't accomplished anything yet after last season's pedestrian Big Ten finish and a Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky.
There is plenty of work to do, a slew of games to win, and adversity to handle.
So far the Hoosiers are taking and making the right steps.
Tom Crean has done his job.
And if one or both bolt, it won't crush Crean.
He has been through too much in four short seasons in Bloomington to be derailed by early-entry decisions.
Zeller and Watford may make a decision by the NCAA's early-entry deadline of Tuesday, or they could wait until the only date that really matters: the NBA's deadline of April 29.
Regardless, for the first time in more than a decade, the Hoosiers are as stable as any elite program in the country.
With Zeller and Watford returning, ESPN.com tabbed Indiana as the preseason No. 1 next season. If they don't return, the Hoosiers will drop in those rankings. But Crean could care less about the predictions. He's not worrying about what others project for his program.
Indiana reached the NCAA tournament for the first time under Crean and pushed eventual champion Kentucky in the Sweet 16, ultimately losing 102-90. The season was a huge success after IU gave the Wildcats their only regular-season loss in a thrilling last-second win in Assembly Hall and finished 11-7 in the Big Ten and 27-9 overall.
"Expectations mean nothing; what matters are what the players' goals are," said Crean. "It's cool [being picked No. 1], but it doesn't mean how hard our players will work in individuals.
"It's great for our fans; it's fantastic,'' Crean said of the top ranking. "It gives the players the ability to stick their chest out. But the onus is on them. We worked extremely hard in the offseason, and now we have to take it up a few notches.''
The Hoosiers were decimated by the Kelvin Sampson mess. Injuries took a toll on the program, too. But the recruitment of Zeller was a game changer.
And this past season, everything clicked. Indiana was so strong and deep that it survived an ACL injury to Verdell Jones III, the only major contributing senior on the team, during the Big Ten tournament.
"We have a great staff, and we've got great competition inside the program,'' said Crean. "We have real competition. We couldn't withstand the injuries in Year 3. We weren't strong enough.''
Crean hasn't forgotten the people who lost faith in the program. He had to rehash the rebuilding process during his NCAA tournament news conferences. He lived it and talked about it, but now he's over it.
The Hoosiers have another stellar crop of players coming in as Crean follows one top recruiting class with another. The five-person class is led by point guard Yogi Ferrell, who should have an immediate impact. So, too, should power forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
Indiana being relevant in college basketball is good for the sport. There's no doubt having one of the nation's storied programs succeed helps ratings and overall interest in the sport.
Crean is at a point now that he has to be selective in his nonconference games.
He said he learned a lot from working for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, with the exception being that Crean won't add too many tough games to the schedule. That's why the annual Kentucky-Indiana series is in jeopardy.
Crean said he has talked to Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart and Wildcats coach John Calipari. The schools' two-year contract ended this past season.
Crean said he isn't sure if the Kentucky game will survive as a series, especially if Indiana begins a series next season with Kansas, which the two schools have discussed.
"We'll have to wait and see," he said. "We're not overscheduling. We're not playing Kentucky if we're playing Kansas.''
"There is interest [in an Indiana-Kansas series] on both sides, and the networks want to do it,'' Crean said.
The Hoosiers will play Butler at a neutral site in Indianapolis, and the Bulldogs are expected to be an NCAA tournament team with the arrival of Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke. Indiana is also in the Legends Classic with UCLA, Georgetown and Georgia. And Crean said he fully expects Indiana to draw one of the top teams in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge (that means either UNC or Duke).
"With the RPI in the Big Ten, we're not going to overschedule,'' Crean said. "With the Kentucky game, are we playing it on campus, neutral site or at all? Those are the three questions we've got to get figured out.''
For now, Crean will wait to see what Zeller and Watford decide.
"We've had adversity here, but it's how you respond that separates you,'' Crean said. "What this team learned was no matter what happens in life, you can overcome obstacles and perceptions. If you put in enough time, have enough faith in yourself, you'll get through a lot of things.
"Last Monday [after the Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky in Atlanta], I wasn't in the weight room, but our coaches were buzzing about the level [of intensity],'' Crean said. "We'll have individual workouts Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and we'll be back to advancing everybody's game.''
A Final Four moves it up another notch.
The matchups usually make the difference in getting this far. Talent -- and star power -- also play big roles.
There is a certain level of pressure for all coaches and programs. For some, it's self-induced. For others, it comes from a passionate fan base. Some programs need to reach the Final Four for the season to be considered a success. Some do not.
With that being said, here is our Final Four pressure-meter (1 feels the least amount of pressure and 10 feels the most):
Baylor (5): The men's team doesn't need to make a Final Four appearance. The women will take care of that, as they are the favorites to win the national title. But the men's team has the makeup to make this run a rare one. Few teams have length like the Bears do, and it's unlikely that Perry Jones III will stick around for a third season. The reason Baylor doesn't have as much pressure to reach the Final Four, even though it has the personnel to make it to New Orleans, is the bracket it's in. Kentucky could stand in the way of Baylor's potential first men's Final Four appearance. The Wildcats are the clear favorites, so expecting the Bears to advance to the Final Four from the South wouldn't be fair.
Cincinnati (3): Cincinnati has survived suspensions and a bumpy ride in the Big East. The Bearcats thrived at the end of the season and reached the conference title game. Mick Cronin and this crew have exceeded expectations by reaching the Sweet 16. Playing one of the favorites in Ohio State takes more pressure off the Bearcats. This ride now is all about extra credit for Cronin and Co.
Florida (4): The Gators won two national titles in consecutive seasons. It will be hard for any program to duplicate that -- ever again. Keeping a team together like the '04 class for the '06 and '07 titles will be extremely difficult to match unless the NBA draft rules change again. The Gators had an easier road to the Sweet 16 thanks to a depleted Virginia team and playing Norfolk State, which exhausted itself with the stunning upset over Missouri. But the Gators don't need to get to the Final Four. If Florida does reach New Orleans with this flawed group and its suspect inside game, it would be quite a feat. The Gators are the lowest remaining seed in the West, too. Expecting them to get past Marquette and possibly top seed Michigan State would be a bit much.
Indiana (3): Tom Crean has turned the corner in Bloomington. There was legitimate reason to be concerned last season. But Crean recruited exceptionally well, getting a star in Cody Zeller, and he got his players to believe they could win big-time games. The victory over Kentucky will resonate for some time. Reaching the Sweet 16 gives Crean even more credibility and respect in the state. However, for this team to get past Kentucky would be asking too much. No one should expect a win over the Wildcats again. To advance to the Elite Eight and the Final Four would be sensational accomplishments. Even though the fan base expects greatness, Indiana has already exceeded any expectations by getting this far.
Louisville (5): The Cardinals are the "pro" team in town. And like Kentucky, the expectations include Final Four appearances. But Louisville has gone through a slew of injuries, and there was no reason to believe it could maintain a high level of play throughout the season. Still, the Cards survived to reach the Sweet 16 and face top-seeded Michigan State. The most pressure may be felt in trying to keep up with rival Kentucky. The expectation is that the Wildcats will be in the Final Four, so why not join them and create even more frenzy in a hoops-crazed state?
Kansas (9): The Jayhawks have two of the top players at their positions in Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Kansas expects to compete for conference and national titles, regardless of personnel, every season. And while Bill Self had to deal with rotation players not being eligible, including top newcomer Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks still won the Big 12 regular-season title for the eighth straight time. Kansas survived against Purdue, but had it not been for a guard meltdown the Jayhawks may be idle right now. Instead, they have new life in the Midwest, thanks to NC State's Sweet 16 run and North Carolina potentially being without Kendall Marshall in the Elite Eight (if the Tar Heels get past Ohio). The pressure has ratcheted up for the Jayhawks. If Marshall is out for this weekend in St. Louis, the Jayhawks are the new favorites in the Midwest.
Kentucky (10): The Wildcats are the front-runners to win the national title, not just get to the Final Four. Let's be honest, anything less than a title would be a disappointment. No team in the Sweet 16 has as much pressure to get to the Final Four as Kentucky. The Wildcats have the most talent, the national player of the year in Anthony Davis, and plenty of other pro talent on the roster (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb). Darius Miller also played in the Final Four last season. John Calipari has coached in three Final Fours. The Wildcats are playing a team that handed them their only regular-season loss. A possible matchup with Baylor is more than formidable. The Bears can match Kentucky's length and shooting, but Baylor's defense has never been its strong suit. The region still lays out well for Kentucky in SEC-rich Catlanta.
Marquette (6): The Golden Eagles play as hard, if not harder, than any other team in the field. Marquette's beat down of BYU in the second half and its ability to run past Murray State late were quite impressive. Now, the Eagles get a Florida team that it matches up well with since they can defend the 3-point shot. Marquette should be the favorite in this game and has the personnel and the toughness to beat Michigan State or Louisville. A Final Four isn't expected with this group, but now the bracket has opened up a bit with Missouri gone. A loss in the Elite Eight makes more sense, but there is some pressure for Marquette to advance with Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom leading the way. The Eagles have been to a Final Four with Dwyane Wade under Crean. A berth for Buzz Williams would raise his coaching profile.
Michigan State (8): The Spartans lost one of their key rotation players in Branden Dawson in the final regular-season game against Ohio State. But they won the Big Ten tournament title without him and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Draymond Green has been the most valuable player so far in the NCAA tournament and has a legit shot to lead the Spartans to another Final Four. Michigan State expects Final Fours under Tom Izzo, but this team certainly didn't look the part early in the season. It has matured into a title contender. And while the bracket is filled with potential hurdles, the Spartans have the pressure of being a top seed and the expectation of a Final Four appearance.
North Carolina (8): The Tar Heels would have had a 10 in this spot if Marshall didn't fracture his wrist against Creighton and have surgery on Monday. Now, the pressure of reaching the Final Four has dropped a few spots. North Carolina was as healthy as it had been in weeks at the start of the game with the Bluejays. But the Marshall injury makes the Tar Heels extremely vulnerable. Ohio is capable of pulling off another upset. And if the Tar Heels get past Ohio, a revenge-minded NC State team or title-contending Kansas awaits. The Tar Heels were built to win a title. That's why Harrison Barnes didn't opt for the NBA. Tyler Zeller had opportunities, as well. The roster is deep enough to absorb injuries to Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland. Let's see if it can take its worst hit and survive without Marshall or having him only on a limited basis. The expectations for a Final Four may have dropped outside of Chapel Hill, but it hasn't inside the Dean Smith Center. Carolina should expect to be in the Final Four yet again. It's just tougher with Marshall's injury and Kansas potentially looming.
NC State (2): The Wolfpack have far exceeded expectations under Mark Gottfried. NC State was the last team revealed on Selection Sunday. It had to be one of the last teams in the field prior to the four at-large teams that played in the First Four. NC State lost a 19-point lead at Duke, and the Wolfpack couldn't close out UNC in the ACC tournament. But they grinded out wins over San Diego State and Georgetown in their first two games of the tournament. This program has had low expectations for years. The Final Four would be gravy on what has already been deemed a highly successful season. The Wolfpack draw Kansas and if they somehow get past KU (not improbable), they could face a rematch with UNC. One can only imagine the scene in Raleigh if NC State, and not UNC, made the Final Four.
Ohio (1): The Bobcats are one of the tournament's great stories. Ohio played one of the more dramatic conference tournament title games when it knocked off Akron in thrilling fashion. The Bobcats got a decent seed at 13 and were matched up against a flawed Michigan squad. Ohio was aggressive and had the more experienced lead guard in D.J. Cooper (vs. the heralded Trey Burke) against the Wolverines. The Bobcats then faced a 12-seed in South Florida that couldn't score and was playing its third game of the tournament. Now, Ohio is playing with house money. The Bobcats have zero pressure in reaching the Final Four. Sure, they are facing a North Carolina team that will likely be sans Marshall. But to expect Ohio to win two more and get to the Final Four would be unfair. Ohio has already made its mark with this Sweet 16 appearance and coach John Groce can likely write his own ticket to a higher-paying job in the Big Ten if he chooses to do so.
Ohio State (9): The Buckeyes would have been a 1-seed if they had beaten Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Jared Sullinger is healthy again, and the personnel hasn't changed. The Buckeyes possess some of the top players at their respective positions in Aaron Craft (top on-ball defender), William Buford (elite shooter) and Deshaun Thomas (a tough matchup as a face-up forward). Ohio State drew an instate rival in Cincinnati. The Bearcats will muck up the game and challenge everything. The top part of the bracket would be just as difficult with either a lock-down defensive team in Wisconsin or an up-and-down transition squad with a pesky zone in top seed Syracuse. But the Orange don't have Fab Melo, so if you were to re-rank the East bracket, the Buckeyes would have to be the favorites. That puts more pressure on Ohio State, and with Sullinger possibly leaving for the NBA, the window to reach the Final Four is now.
Syracuse (9): The Orange were built for a Final Four run. No team had players coming off the bench like Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams. Fair is starting now, but the overall depth is still impressive. Melo's ineligibility knocks the Orange down from a 10. The expectation was Final Four or bust since they started showing their dominance during the Big East season. Syracuse has tremendous versatility with Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph all able to make key shots. The Orange weren't tested by Kansas State after surviving a scare from UNC Asheville. The expectation is that it should beat Wisconsin and play against Ohio State. Syracuse may not be projected to beat the Buckeyes in a possible Elite Eight matchup now, sans Melo, but the pressure is there to get to a Final Four with a group that won't be together next season.
Wisconsin (4): Bo Ryan has never reached the Final Four. But he has had better teams projected to go farther. This squad has improved more than any of the previous teams he's coached at Wisconsin. The Badgers lost three early-season home games, and that rattled their confidence. But it didn't take away their resolve. Wisconsin found its shooting stroke, maintained its defensive intensity and got star-level play out of a role player in Ryan Evans. Jordan Taylor is still the leader and will take -- and make -- the big shots. The Badgers were the more polished team in wins over Montana and Vanderbilt. The expectation to knock off Syracuse isn't high. But if that occurs, then a team they already beat -- Ohio State -- could be standing in their way. The Badgers' last Final Four appearance was in 2000. The fan base is hungry for another run, but it doesn't need one. Ryan would like one, but he knows this may not be his best shot. Still, it's plausible in the current bracket.
Xavier (3): The Musketeers may not have been here had it not been for an A-10 title game appearance. Xavier had to mount a season-long repair project to get to this point. And it worked. Coach Chris Mack deserves as much credit for this run as the criticism he took for the way he initially handled the post-brawl situation. He matured as a coach during the season, dealt with his own knee injury and clearly got his lead guards, notably Tu Holloway, to refocus on the task at hand. Xavier survived Notre Dame by playing smarter than the Irish. It showed more moxie than Lehigh in finishing with a strong kick. No one is expecting Xavier to make the Final Four, even those that projected the Musketeers to do so in November. But Baylor is beatable. Taking down Kentucky would be quite a feat. The pressure is low. Xavier has already exceeded the expectations of a team that once had Final Four aspirations but didn't play that way for most of the Atlantic 10 season. Now that it's two wins away, the pressure is even lower. Xavier has already done well to finish the season on a high.
College basketball could use a Heisman-like award, one main honor instead of the five mainstream national awards.
The problem is that finding a consensus for the Wooden, Naismith, AP, Rupp and Oscar Robertson honors is no easy task.
The awards voters do tend to coalesce behind one candidate. And maybe that will be the case again.
But it seems that this season's race will be as wide open as ever. If you need more evidence, take a look at the 25 finalists for the Wooden Award, released on ESPNU and ESPN.com on Tuesday.
It appears that the only two players who are consensus candidates are Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Creighton's Doug McDermott. It's not a reach to say these two players are the favorites in mid-January, a stunning development considering how much preseason hype Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes received. The amazing part thus far is that I don't believe Sullinger nor Barnes would be a first-team All-American if the voting were conducted today.
Before we get to the list of players compiled by the Wooden folks, it's important to note that these are simply the 25 players who they felt should be honored on their midseason list. Players who do not show up are still very much eligible to win the Wooden Award at the end of the season and will be given equal consideration.
So without further ado, here are the 25 Wooden finalists (in alphabetical order):
Harrison Barnes, 6-foot-8, So., F, North Carolina Stat line: 16.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Chances: Fading. Still has a shot to be a second-team All-American. Barnes hasn't been the dominating player on the Tar Heels. To be fair, he has some of the best talent in the country (John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall) surrounding him. UNC's 33-point loss to Florida State didn't help his case, either.
Will Barton, 6-6, So., F, Memphis Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg
Chances: No shot. He could be the Conference USA Player of the Year, though. Barton has greatly improved and has been the most consistent player during the Tigers' inconsistent season.
William Buford, 6-6, Sr., G, Ohio State Stat line: 15.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Chances: No shot. Buford won't win Big Ten POY, either. He has been OSU's best perimeter threat, but he won't be a first-team All-American. Buford might not even be first-team All-Big Ten. He is an integral part of the Buckeyes' title hopes, but is not a POY contender.
Anthony Davis, 6-10, Fr., C, Kentucky Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.6 bpg
Chances: High. Davis has been the most dominant post player in the country. He blocked a last-second shot by North Carolina's John Henson in December, preventing the Tar Heels from winning a game at Rupp. He alters and changes more shots than any other player. If the Wildcats win the national title, Davis will be one of the reasons why. He would be ahead of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger on the All-America ballot if you had to choose one of them.
Marcus Denmon, 6-3, Sr., G, Missouri Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Chances: Not great. Denmon is the leading scorer for Mizzou. But it's hard to separate him from Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon and Flip Pressey in his importance to the Tigers. They all have played an equal role in Missouri's impressive start. It will be interesting to see which of these players earns first-team All-Big 12.
Draymond Green, 6-7, Sr., F, Michigan State Stat line: 15.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg
Chances: In the mix. If he continues his current pace of scoring and rebounding, Green could end up nudging out Sullinger for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Spartans did lose at Northwestern on Saturday, but Green has been a tremendous leader. He will stay in the chase for a first-team All-American spot if his team stays in the race for the Big Ten title.
John Henson, 6-11, Jr., C, North Carolina Stat line: 14.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg
Chances: No shot. Henson didn't convert the biggest shot of his season against Kentucky. Davis blocked it. And if Barnes isn't the national player of the year, Henson isn't either. The 33-point loss to Florida State will haunt all Tar Heels candidates.
John Jenkins, 6-4, Jr., G, Vanderbilt Stat line: 19.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg
Chances: No shot. Jenkins is a superb shooter and scorer and is leading the revitalized Commodores. But his role isn't more important than Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley or Festus Ezeli -- it is equally important. The 'Dores mid-nonconference slide hurts Jenkins' campaign. The success of the Kentucky freshmen also makes it almost impossible for Jenkins to get SEC Player of the Year.
Orlando Johnson, 6-5, Sr., G, UCSB Stat line: 20.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg
Chances: No shot. Johnson is having a stellar season for the Gauchos, and he may be one of the higher draft picks on this list. But the Gauchos are 8-6 and are trailing Long Beach State in the Big West. Johnson should be an All-American, but he won't make the first team.
Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2, Sr., G, Marquette Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg
Chances: No shot. DJO has had a superb season for the Golden Eagles. He has a legit shot at Big East Player of the Year. But that won't be enough to get a first-team All-American spot or the national POY. Marquette has been decent, but not great enough for DJO to stand out on that pedestal.
Kevin Jones, 6-8, Sr., F, West Virginia Stat line: 20.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg
Chances: Decent. Jones has put it all together as a senior and has put up just a monster season for the Mountaineers. Just seems like it's double-double after double-double for Jones, who will need to keep the Mountaineers in the top 3 of the Big East in order to stay in Wooden contention.
Perry Jones III, 6-11, So., C, Baylor Stat line: 14.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg
Chances: No shot at player of the year, but he is in the hunt for a first-team All-American slot. The problem for Jones' candidacy is that Quincy Acy has been a comparable inside scorer and guard Pierre Jackson has been an integral member of this team. Jones didn't help his case when he and the Bears were dominated by Kansas' Thomas Robinson in a loss on Monday night. But he can't win national POY if he isn't the Big 12 Player of the Year. And Robinson is the favorite for that honor.
Kris Joseph, 6-7, Sr., F, Syracuse Stat line: 13.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Chances: No shot. Joseph is leading the Orange, but this team is so deep, so talented and so balanced that you would have a hard time picking just him. Dion Waiters may be Syracuse's MVP. A number of other players have taken turns being the star for the Orange, too.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 6-7, Fr., F, Kentucky Stat line: 13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 49.4 FG percentage
Chances: Solid. Kidd-Gilchrist could be the SEC Player of the Year. And if he gets that honor, he'll be in contention for the national POY. Kidd-Gilchrist took a few games to get going, but once he did he was an offensive force. He has delivered on his talent and effort.
Jeremy Lamb, 6-5, So., G, Connecticut Stat line: 17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Chances: No shot. Lamb is leading the Huskies in scoring. But UConn is still finding its way in the Big East. The Huskies haven't featured Lamb as much, either. Andre Drummond may end up being the team's featured scorer by season's end. Lamb isn't the Big East Player of the Year right now, so he isn't winning the national honor.
Damian Lillard, 6-3, Jr., G, Weber State Stat line: 25.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg
Chances: He won't win national POY, but he should be in contention for second-team All-American honors. Lillard is having a stellar season for the Wildcats, who are in first place in the Big Sky. He leads the nation in scoring and his stat line is as good as any in the country. The problem is that Weber has been in obscurity so far this season. Lillard will likely not be seen by the masses until March.
Doug McDermott, 6-7, So., F, Creighton Stat line: 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 62.1 FG
Chances: High. McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the country and is a first-team All-American, at the very least. He could be this season's Jimmer Fredette, coming from outside a power six conference to win the national player of the year honor. McDermott has led the Bluejays to the top of the Missouri Valley and into the Top 25. He is the focus of every opposing defense, too.
Scott Machado, 6-1, Sr., G, Iona Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 10.3 apg
Chances: Not happening for POY, but he's in the hunt as a first-team All-American. Machado has been the most dominant point guard this season and easily leads the country in assists. Iona has played a decent schedule and is the team to beat in the MAAC. Few teams will want to face the Gaels in March, and Machado is one of the key reasons why.
Kendall Marshall, 6-4, So., G, North Carolina Stat line: 5.8 ppg, 9.6 apg
Chances: No shot. Marshall is a key for the Tar Heels. He hasn't been the best point guard in the country, but has been a solid contributor this season and does rank second behind Machado in assists. But that isn't enough to win the award or be a first-team candidate.
Mike Moser, 6-8, So., F, UNLV Stat line: 13.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg
Chances: No shot. But Moser has to be in contention for a first- or second-team All-American spot. His rebounding has been epic (especially against North Carolina). Moser and fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback have been the major reasons the Runnin' Rebels are ranked and in contention for the MWC title.
Arnett Moultrie, 6-11, Jr., C, Mississippi State Stat line: 16.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg
Chances: Not good for POY, but he's a serious candidate for first-team All-American. Outside of Moser, Moultrie has had the most impact of any transfer. He has increased MSU's chances of being a serious threat to Kentucky in the SEC. Moultrie is a double-double machine for coach Rick Stansbury and has allowed the Bulldogs to avoid relying only on Renardo Sidney.
Thomas Robinson, 6-9, Jr., F, Kansas Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg
Chances: High. Robinson is the POY favorite at this juncture. He should be a consensus first-team All-American. He has had to take on immense responsibility with the departure of the Morris twins and has responded without a hitch. He carries the weight of the incredible burden of losing his mother during last season. And yet he is as focused as ever in 2011-12. Robinson dominated in the rout over Baylor on Monday night with 27 points and 14 rebounds.
Mike Scott, 6-8, Sr., F, Virginia Stat line: 16.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg
Chances: He has no shot for national POY, but Scott is one of the favorites for ACC Player of the Year. He has been the most consistent big man in the league. Take Scott off the Cavs, and they don't come close to the top of the league standings. But Virginia did lose at Duke and also fell to TCU. Scott will have to keep the Cavs in the ACC's top three to have a chance at the league's POY.
Jared Sullinger, 6-9, So., F, Ohio State Stat line: 17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg
Chances: Still strong. Sullinger has been battling injuries (back, foot) and missed the road game at Kansas in December. That's part of the reason he is not the favorite right now. Sullinger still has plenty of time to be a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. But it would help if he had some dominating performances down the stretch.
Cody Zeller, 6-11, Fr., C, Indiana Stat line: 14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Chances: No shot. But Zeller is in the chase for Big Ten Player of the Year. At the very least, he'll be the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. It's amazing that he's on this list and his older brother Tyler (a senior at North Carolina) is not. Cody has helped transform Indiana into a national player, but the Hoosiers' recent two-game skid does take his chances for Big Ten POY down a peg.
My midseason All-America team choices: First team: Robinson, McDermott, Davis, Moultrie, Machado Second team: Kidd-Gilchrist, Sullinger, Green, K. Jones, C. Zeller